The Effects of Race-related Stress on Cortisol Reactivity in the Laboratory: Implications of the Duke Lacrosse Scandal



The experience of race-related stressors is associated with physiological stress responses. However, much is unknown still about the complex relationship between how race-related stressors are perceived and experienced and potential moderators such as strength of racial identity.


This research examines the impact of a real-life stressor and strength of race identity on physiological responses to a social evaluative threat induced in the laboratory.


Salivary cortisol measures were collected throughout a stressor protocol. African-American participants were also randomized to one of two conditions designed to promote either racial identification or student identification, before the experimental task. Unexpectedly, a highly publicized real-life racial stressor, the Duke Lacrosse (LaX) scandal, occurred during the course of the data collection. This allowed for pre–post LaX comparisons to be made on cortisol levels.


These comparisons showed that across both priming conditions, participants post-LaX had highly elevated cortisol levels that were nonresponsive to the experimental stress task, while their pre-LaX counterparts had lower cortisol levels that exhibited a normal stress response pattern. Furthermore, this effect of LaX was significantly moderated by gender, with women having lower mean cortisol levels pre-LaX but significantly greater cortisol levels than all other groups post-LaX.


These results suggest that recent exposure to race-related stress can have a sustained impact on physiological stress responses for African Americans.

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    We validated that saliva with or without citric acid stimulation yield comparable cortisol levels. To accomplish this test, we measured cortisol in ten samples from the current study and ten samples from saliva that was not stimulated by citric acid. We measured samples by themselves and with the addition of 2 ng/ml of cortisol standard. The computed values of cortisol were 92 ± 4% (SEM) of what was predicted if the values were simply additive for our sample.


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This work was supported by NIMH grant no. 1K01 MH074942-01 awarded to the first author. We thank Sherman James, Clemons Kirschbaum, and Redford Williams for helpful comments on earlier versions of this article, Gary Bennett for his valuable insights, Jasmin Sukati for her assistance with data collection, and Cynthia Kuhn for her assistance with the cortisol assays.

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Correspondence to Laura Smart Richman Ph.D..

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Richman, L.S., Jonassaint, C. The Effects of Race-related Stress on Cortisol Reactivity in the Laboratory: Implications of the Duke Lacrosse Scandal. ann. behav. med. 35, 105–110 (2008).

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  • Cortisol
  • Racial Stressors
  • Identity